Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers. Headlines are made when wildlife is attracted to humans and their food. Bears get the most attention for tearing into tents, coolers and cars in search of a meal, but in reality, rodents and birds are probably going to be the wildlife you have the most interactions with while camping. These animals pose little threat to human safety, but their presence can be a nuisance, they can spread disease and their taste for human food is a harm to their own well-being.
Animals are adept opportunists. When offered the temptations of an untidy backcountry kitchen or a handout from a curious camper, they can overcome their natural wariness of humans. Aggressive or destructive behavior may follow, and in conflicts with humans, animals ultimately lose. Human foods and products are harmful to wildlife because they prevent animals from foraging and eating a nutritious diet. Prospects of an easy meal lure wildlife into hazardous areas such as campsites and trailheads or roads and entry points, where they may be chased by dogs or hit by vehicles. It may also cause them to congregate in unnatural numbers, increasing stress and the spread of disease within their populations.
Store food and trash securely. “Food” includes garbage, canned food, stock feed, pet food, fuel and scented or flavored toiletries. The salt in hiking boots, backpacks or clothing can also attract many small mammals.
To avoid attracting animals, keep a clean camp by picking up all garbage — even the tiniest food scraps — and carrying it out in a plastic bag. Be careful not to drop food on the trail as well. Appropriate storage and transportation methods vary considerably from place to place, so consult local rangers and land managers about the best practices.
Control your pet. Wildlife and pets are not a good mix — even on a leash, dogs harass wildlife and disturb other visitors. A dog can frighten wildlife and distract wildlife from performing tasks vital to their survival, such as finding food. The best option, therefore, is to leave your dog at home. If you must travel with your pet, check for restrictions in advance. Most national parks prohibit dogs on all trails. Always use a collar and a short leash to control your dog. Remove pet poo from trails, picnic areas and campsites by disposing of it in a cat hole as you would human waste, or in a trash can.
Special considerations for bear country. The chance to explore a wild place that is still inhabited by large predators is a special experience, but one that also comes with responsibility. As we head into those wild places for our own adventure, we need to recognize that we are entering the places a bear can call home. Our actions in these places can have a dramatic impact on the future of these animals.
Bears are opportunistic omnivores who follow their nose to the next meal. This skill has kept them fed, but it has also resulted in “problem bears,” or bears that associate humans with food. Once this association has been made, a bear is generally doomed. Most land managers give a bear two chances to reform, after that it is destroyed if it comes into someone’s camp looking for a handout. Bears are not cuddly, harmless pets. They have killed and mauled humans, sometimes without an understandable cause.
Black bears are most dangerous when surprised or threatened. Therefore, the first step to safety for bears and people is to avoid an unexpected encounter. Make noise when you are traveling in bear country, especially in spots where visibility is limited by vegetation. Travel in groups of three or more and stay close together. Watch for bear signs — tracks, scat, clawed trees, etc. If you smell an animal carcass, go out of your way to avoid it. Be particularly wary of a female with cubs. You don’t want to come between mama bear and her babies, or any bear and its dinner.
When you camp in bear country, separate your cooking area from the place you plan to sleep by at least 100 yards. Concentrate all odors in the cooking area. Do not bring food back to your tent. In some cases, you may even consider storing the clothes you cook in with food and other odorous items. Anything that smells should either be hung up overnight or stored in a bear-proof container. This includes toothpaste, soap and bug repellant.
Watch: How to Use a Bear Canister >>
Hang food from tree limbs 12 feet off the ground, 6 feet from the tree’s trunk and 6 feet below the supporting limb, or store it in specially designed bear-resistant canisters or on-site lockers.